For more than 70 years, the Harry M. Stevens Co. has been selling hot dogs and hamburgers at Maryland thoroughbred racetracks.
Starting Dec. 26, a new company, Maryland Turf Caterers, recently formed and owned by longtime Stevens vice president Brian Handleman, will take over all food and beverage services at Laurel and Pimlico race courses.
Track operator Joe De Francis said yesterday that he had signed a multi-year contract with Handleman.
It is the first in a number of personnel and management adjustments that De Francis is expected to initiate in the coming months.
"We are planning significant changes in the food and corresponding services we will be offering our fans," De Francis said. "We have had a good relationship over the years with Stevens, and I can't say enough good things about Bill Koras, the company's president. In fact, we have signed a multi-year agreement with them to help us out on Preakness Day."
But De Francis said that, in order to improve quality, he wanted an exclusive caterer for his two tracks.
"We get a number of complaints about our food service [about the preparation and lack of variety], and instead of dealing with a national company, I feel we can bring the level of performance up and satisfy our patrons with our own local organization," De Francis said.
"Brian is probably one of the most innovative and creative people in the sports catering business. But whenever I needed him before, he was somewhere else, like the The Meadowlands or the Astrodome. Now, instead of having 10 percent of his time, we'll have 100 percent."
Handleman, 51, is a Baltimore native who started working for Stevens 36 years ago, selling hot dogs as a teen-ager at Pimlico. For the past 10 years, he has been vice president and director of labor relations for Stevens, traveling all over the country for the company, which is considered the founding father of sports concessionaires.
"This has been a difficult decision, but it is also a fantastic opportunity," Handleman said. "I don't want to get into specifics just yet, but people will notice the difference on Dec. 26. We will have more latitude, try to be more innovative and will be very customer-oriented."
Handleman said that Stevens' management staff at Laurel-Pimlico will stay on and work for him, including current general manager Brenda Handleman, his ex-wife.
He added that "basically the same people [in other capacities] will still have their jobs."
Koras said that "emotionally, this affects me. Stevens has been in Maryland, I know, since the inception of racing at Bowie and Laurel [in the early 1900s] and at Pimlico for almost as long.
"I started out, just like Brian, working the counters at Pimlico. Our company has tried hard to work with both Joe and his father, Frank De Francis, and we've had good relations with them," he said. "But there is racing year-round now just between the two tracks, and Joe wants to do his own thing and control the operation."
Koras said the parting "is not acrimonious. There will be a smooth transition."
Harry M. Stevens Maintenance Services, headquartered in Catonsville, still will have the cleaning contract at the two tracks. The company also will continue to provide catering services to other Maryland racetracks that are under different ownership -- Timonium Race Course and the state's two harness tracks, Rosecroft Raceway and Delmarva Downs.
Koras, the first non-Stevens family member to serve as chairman of the board of Harry M. Stevens, said the company has many Maryland ties, although the corporate headquarters are in Cranberry, N.J.
Koras lives in Lutherville, and retired chairman Joe Stevens lives in Chestertown.
Harry M. Stevens has about 20,000 employees, including part-time workers, nationwide. They provide catering services to more than a dozen racetracks, such as Churchill Downs, Gulfstream Park and The Meadowlands, as well as such football and baseball stadiums, including Fenway Park, Giants Stadium and Candlestick Park.